Originally published in Salvo Magazine
In recent years, origin stories have become a common way to revisit successful characters in popular entertainment. Whether it’s learning how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader or how a hobbit named Bilbo took possession of the Ring, origin stories help us make sense of later events and satisfy our curiosity. In the real world, our interest in the origin of things is what makes pursuits like science, history, and philosophy compelling. We’re designed to build robust models of understanding about the world around us by adding new knowledge to existing knowledge. In short, our inquiring minds want to know.
Perhaps the biggest origin story of them all is the origin of the universe. At some point, we all wonder where life came from, why we exist, and what’s out there beyond us. Thinkers as far back as Aristotle considered the universe eternal and self-existent. Others affirmed by faith that it had come from nothing as the result of a creation event. In the early 20th century, things kicked into high gear with the startling scientific discovery that the universe had a beginning. Since then, physicists have been working on theories to explain the existence of the universe as well as the exquisite fine-tuning that governs it and makes life possible. They’ve come up with some inventive ideas.
Multiverse Theory Varieties
One of the most popular theories of universal origins today is the multiverse. It’s the idea that our universe is just one of many others in the cosmos. The multiverse comes in a few different flavors, each with its own universe-generating mechanism. The inflationary multiverse, for example, proposes an outward-pushing field with vacuum energy that spawns an infinite number of isolated universes. The string-theory multiverse, on the other hand, suggests that tiny one-dimensional strings or filaments are the fundamental units of life. These strings form different vibrational patterns, held together in a certain shape by lines of flux and influenced by an elusive hypothetical particle known as a graviton. In the string landscape, decaying universes morph into new ones as the process moves through a variety of possible configurations.
These ideas are certainly provocative, but as origin stories go, they’re not very satisfying. It’s a bit like claiming the existence of an infinite number of hobbits, each with their own personalities and experiences. Eventually, one of them was bound to befriend a Gandalf, defeat a Smaug, and find a certain magical object. Is that a better explanation than the existence of one very special hobbit?
Scientific Reasoning about Events in the Past
It turns out there’s an effective way to evaluate theories of the origin of the universe. Philosopher of science Dr. Stephen Meyer has been studying some of our biggest origin stories for over three decades. In his work assessing theories of the origin of life, complex animals, and the universe, Meyer uses a method of reasoning known as abduction to evaluate different explanations for events. This reasoning is especially helpful when studying events that occurred in the remote past. No one was around to observe the birth of the universe, but as paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould has explained, historical scientists proceed by “inferring history from its results.” Abductive reasoning gives us a cause for considering that a hypothesis might be true. It can’t produce certainty, but it can help us decide what is most likely, given a range of explanations.
Multiverse Theories Examined
In his book Return of the God Hypothesis, Meyer weighs the explanatory power of the multiverse and provides at least four reasons to be skeptical. The first difficulty with such many-layered theories is that they violate the law of parsimony, known as Ockham’s razor. This well-known practice, commonly applied in science and philosophy, states that when formulating educated guesses to explain things, one should avoid suggesting multiple explanatory entities without necessity. To subscribe to the multiverse, one would also need to subscribe to a host of other notions, including other universes, inflaton fields, tiny strings of energy, hidden spatial dimensions, gravitons, gravitinos, and more. In the end, our observations and experience of the world suggest that the hypothesis rooted in elegant simplicity has a better chance of being correct.
Another problem with multiverse proposals is that they are purely hypothetical. There is no way to observe them first-hand. Although unobservability is a hallmark of historical sciences, theorists must be careful not to give too much credit to numbers and laws themselves. Math can’t produce phenomena – it can only describe things already in existence. As Stephen Hawking wrote in his book A Brief History of Time, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”
A third reason Meyer doubts the explanatory power of multiverse ideas is that they end up pushing the origin problem further back. The universe generating mechanisms of the multiverse would themselves require prior unexplained fine tuning. Plus, the multiverse requires an even greater initial surge of energy than the standard Big Bang model. That means more disorder (entropy) and an even greater order required at the beginning. More fine-tuning means more that the multiverse must explain. Fourthly, key predictions of inflationary multiverse models have failed to materialize, as has evidence of the “supersymmetry” proposed by string theory. This has brought about more contrived variations on the models, leading to what some philosophers of science call bloated theories.
When there is more than one possible cause to explain the same evidence, scientists use the method of multiple competing hypotheses to come to what modern thinkers call an inference to the best explanation. After evaluating the contending theories and available evidence, Meyer infers that an intelligent agent is the mechanism that best satisfies the evidence of universal origins. It’s a far simpler, less bloated hypothesis that also matches our everyday understanding of how new information arises—through conscious activity, or mind.
Although science cannot definitively prove what caused the existence of our universe, it gives us reliable methods of reasoning to determine the most probable cause. As humans, all of us have the ability as well as the mandate to evaluate scientific ideas and decide which ones best explain the evidence. In that way we’re all characters in the greatest origin story of all time.
Step aside, Mr. Baggins. This one’s much bigger than Middle Earth.